It’s a boom time for Anne Boleyn revisionism. Almost 500 years after her death, a spate of pop culture portrayals are going beyond the sing-song ‘divorced, beheaded, died…’ rhyme to bring us a new perspective on English history’s most maligned second wife, from West End hit Six to Channel 5’s upcoming three-part drama, which re-imagines Anne’s final months through the claustrophobic prism of a psychological thriller. Think The Tudors meets Doctor Foster, complete with a philandering husband who - to borrow a very 21st century phrase - sometimes comes across as a bit of a gaslighter.
“You’ve got to ask yourself what sort of person he was - you can’t emulate a painting,” says Mark Stanley, who plays the Tudor king in the series, opposite Jodie Turner-Smith’s Anne Boleyn. “We’ve got to be able to try and make him as three dimensional, as human as possible.” His Henry VIII has too many contradictions to feel like a panto villain in an ostrich-feathered hat. To “get underneath” those Holbein portraits of a middle-aged monarch standing “with his legs apart and his hands on his hips,” he looked at “his early writings, his poetry, his teachings in strategy,” he explains over Zoom, with the odd interruption from his sister’s dog, a voluble Bichon Frise.
Stanley, 33, began to see the character as someone “going through a certain transitional period in his life, where he had been injured in this hunting accident, he had a stillborn child, and he’s got a female heir, which was of no consequence at that point… He was incrementally coming under so much pressure and scrutiny, and I started to ask myself, ‘how would you feel if constantly it seemed like whatever choice you make, you’re hitting a dead end, after having been so well revered in younger life?’”
Created by Fable, the production company behind the Bafta-nominated film Rocks and written by Eve Hedderwick Turner, Anne Boleyn joins a new guard of period dramas ripping up the genre’s staid rulebook. Casting followed an ‘identity conscious’ approach, with Turner-Smith, whose parents are Jamaican, becoming the first black actress to play the Tudor queen, joined by I May Destroy You’s Paapa Essiedu as her brother George. “It’s almost like period drama is starting to do what theatre has been doing for years - they don’t care about who they cast, as long as they’re good and they’re the right person for the job,” Stanley says, adding that shows like this should be “leaning away from [conventions] in order to incorporate the kind of world that we live in now.”
The series’ casting has, inevitably, provoked debate online, but for Stanley, this “forward way of thinking” was a major draw. “I want to be one of those people waving that flag and saying: ‘Let’s move away from those museum pieces that were basically just replicas of themselves,’” he explains. Though the discussion around the show initially made him “kind of impatient,” he’s since realised it’s part of “a process of change, and we need to still talk about it before it becomes ingrained in the things that we make” - which will “hopefully draw much larger audiences and actually start to put on the screen what is in our streets and in our country.”
Successes as disparate as Bridgerton and anthology series Small Axe, which shone a light on black British experience from the 60s to the 80s, certainly prove there’s plenty of demand for re-framing the historical drama. Stanley had a supporting role in Red, White and Blue, the third film in Steve McQueen’s series, appearing alongside John Boyega. “I wouldn’t have cared if I was just making tea on that job - I just wanted to see Steve McQueen work,” he recalls. “My partner [actress Rochenda Sandall] had just finished quite a long shoot on Mangrove, the first one. She told me so much about him, so when I got a call… I jumped at it.”
Since landing a part on Game of Thrones soon after graduating from the Guildhall, Stanley has clocked up heterogeneous roles in everything from true crime procedurals (White House Farm and Honour) to more conventional period pieces like Sanditon and psychologically intense films like Dark River and Sulphur and White - “I’d become quite bored, I think, if I was constantly just applying me to every character,” he notes. A career in acting, though, initially “didn’t offer itself as a viable option” when he was growing up near Leeds. “There are no feed lines for it where I’m from at all,” he says. When he moved to a new sixth form at 16, he “only did drama because I didn’t get into sociology [A Level]” and it was only with a teacher’s encouragement that he then applied to drama school. “He started putting all these names down… I had no idea what they were,” he recalls. “I’ve got to come up with a Shakespeare monologue? What would I do with that… Luckily, I got in and started to really enjoy the freedom.”
Over the summer, Stanley is “jumping between” a handful of projects - with “three [Covid] tests a week from all of them” - including ITV’s dramatisation of the strange case of John Darwin, who famously faked his own death in a canoeing accident in 2002 in order to cash in his life insurance and start a new life in Panama (he’ll play one of Darwin’s sons). He’s hopeful that some of these upcoming roles might earn him the ultimate accolade - “Gogglebox material”.
Thanks to her stint as a member of television’s most notorious OCG, he says, his partner has already appeared in front of the Channel 4 show’s panel of armchair critics a few times, and he’s keen to match that. “[We] always laugh about it because she did Line of Duty [in series five], and when Line of Duty is on, it always seems to get its own little special moment… so I’ve got quite a bit of catching up to do,” he explains. “If any of them do make it - that’s my Oscar, if you get onto Gogglebox.”
Anne Boleyn starts on June 1 at 9pm on Channel 5
Photography: Natasha Pszenicki. Grooming :Topaz Knight